Free Software Foundation favors LibreOffice over OpenOffice

Some people in the open-source community are not at all pleased that Oracle has given OpenOffice to Apache and so they are throwing their support behind LibreOffice.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

When Oracle, IBM, and the Apache Software Foundation jointly announced last week that OpenOffice.org would become an official Apache project, some open-source developers were not happy. The Document Foundation's LibreOffice programmers were really not pleased. Now, the Free Software Foundation (FSF) is coming out against the deal.

In a statement that will be released later today, June 10th, 2011, the FSF states that the "OpenOffice.org is an important piece of free software, and many of its supporters suggest that this change will give them more control over the project's future direction. However, users and contributors should be aware that, as part of this transition, it will become easier for proprietary software developers to distribute OpenOffice.org as non-free software."

The FSF continues:

All Apache projects are distributed under the terms of the Apache License. This is a non-copyleft free software license; anybody who receives the software can distribute it to others under non-free terms.

Such a licensing strategy represents a significant policy change for OpenOffice.org. Previously, the software was distributed under the terms of the GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL) and Mozilla Public License (MPL).

Both of these licenses implement a weak copyleft; the original core software must be published under the same terms so every recipient can share and modify it, but developers who write new software on top of it may distribute that work under a non-free license. Free software developers are clearly comfortable with a partial copyleft when it's appropriate; in numerous surveys of free software projects, the LGPL is commonly listed as the second-most popular license (after the GNU General Public License), or else follows close behind.

While we do recommend the Apache License in specific situations, we do not believe it is the best choice for software like OpenOffice.org. This situation calls for copyleft, because the gains free software stands to make from a non-copyleft license don't justify giving a handout to proprietary software developers.

Fortunately, there's a ready alternative for people who want to work with a productivity suite that does more to protect their freedom: LibreOffice. Anybody who's comfortable with OpenOffice.org will find a familiar interface and feature set in LibreOffice, because it was originally based on the same source code. Since September 2010, numerous contributors have been working to improve the software, and the project's legal steward, The Document Foundation, is committed to keeping it licensed under the LGPL and MPL.

In addition to the FSF's licensing concerns, a former Microsoft developer and now free-software-advocate Keith Curtis described several practical programming issues for why LibreOffice is the better choice for would be open-source office suite devlopers in an open letter to an Apache mailing list.

Curtis lists numerous reasons for this. These include:

  • This s mostly a code dump, not the set of 50(?) full-time engineers who have created been maintaining this code.
  • This technology is massive. It is about the same size as the Linux kernel (10 million lines).
  • The Apache foundation has a lot of experience, but none with this codebase. Therefore, their help will be limited. It is like asking a surgeon to fix your car.
  • The code dump is missing a lot (filters, images, translations, etc.)
  • There is nothing to incubate. LibreOffice has just built everything you need.

Thus Curits and the FSF are in agreement when the FSF states that: "Anybody who plans to use or contribute to one of these productivity suites should understand how these policies affect them, and consider which better complement their own goals. While both pass the most important test of being free software, we recommend LibreOffice because its policies do significantly more to promote the cause of free software."

They're not the only ones. I confess that I also see a brighter future for LibreOffice than I do for OpenOffice. It's not just that the LGPL is the better license, it's that, as Curtis states, LibreOffice is where the developers are. Without top programmers, OpenOffice is little more than a brand and code destined to become obsolete.

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